Commentary

What we learned at the Memorial

Looking past the Memorial toward the U.S. Open

Updated: June 3, 2013, 2:58 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

DUBLIN, Ohio -- Only a few minutes after Tiger Woods teed off in Sunday's final round of The Memorial, tournament founder and host Jack Nicklaus made a prediction.

"My bet is he'll shoot a good round today," said Nicklaus, whose 18 majors victories remain the only number that matters to Woods.

Nicklaus is the greatest player in golf history, a world-class course architect, but a semi-lousy score forecaster.

Woods shot an even-par 72, though in fairness to Jack, it might have been a 69 if he hadn't met the left bunker on the par-3 12th hole.

The day before he shot 79, including the worst nine-hole score of his professional career, 44.

This isn't exactly what Woods had in mind as he resumes his private prep work for the U.S. Open, which starts June 13 at Merion Golf Club.

He's won Nicklaus' tournament five times and came here as the defending champion. He'll leave with a T-65, 20 shots behind winner Matt Kuchar.

"It happens," Woods said. "It happens to all of us."

It was a lost weekend for Woods, the world's No. 1 ranked player who putted as if he were trying to leave bruise marks on the back of the cup. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was making a full shoulder turn.

Listen hard and you'll hear splashing sounds as people jump off Woods' U.S. Open ship. They'll look at his 79-72 and figure that if he can't handle Muirfield's slick greens or its rough as thick as Rory McIlroy's hair, then how bad will it be at Merion, where the USGA hates red numbers?

Merion is sub-7,000 yards, but tight. I can see the USGA making some of those fairway landing areas as small as Paulina Gretzky's bikini.

And how fast do you think those greens will be? In other words, what's the Stimpmeter reading for tile roofs?

There's no way around it: Woods played poorly here. He couldn't handle the winds. He couldn't solve the pace of the greens. He didn't phone it in Sunday -- he almost never does -- but let's just say Woods wasn't sad about heading home to Florida.

So what does it mean?

Do you pull the cord on the Woods escape hatch and find a new U.S. Open favorite? Or do you do what Nicklaus advised Sunday: Ignore Woods' Memorial scorecard?

"Let me put it this way," Nicklaus said. "I would think going into the U.S. Open, a player would rather have not shot 79. I don't think you can take much from that."

And just to make the point, Nicklaus told a story.

"I'll give you this one," he said, smiling. "Last U.S. Open I won I shot 72-79 the week before. I missed the cut. Atlanta. OK, how's that? And then I broke the Open record.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteTiger Woods finished 20 strokes behind winner Matt Kuchar in a tie for 65th.

"So I wouldn't read too much into that."

Nicklaus got most of the facts right.

He did miss the cut at the 1980 Atlanta Classic at the Atlanta Athletic Club, but he shot 78-67. And sure enough, he went to Baltusrol and broke his own U.S. Open record for total score (272) -- a record that stood until McIlroy's performance at Congressional in 2011.

I'm with Nicklaus. I wouldn't read too much into what Woods did here. He has won big here and he's stunk it up big here too.

Three of his worst 22 finishes as a pro have come at Memorial. It happens. "When you don't make anything, all of a  sudden you get discouraged and then you hit a bad shot and then you try to make it up with a putt, then all of a sudden it multiplies," Nicklaus said. "He's just obviously struggled."

Anyway, who would you take in the U.S. Open instead of Woods?

McIlroy is ranked No. 2 in the world rankings, but you wouldn't know it by his play this year. He has been in a season-long funk and hasn't won a thing, though he said he's close to a breakthrough.

"It's not that far away," said McIlroy, who shot 72 Sunday and was in a good enough mood afterward to race a tournament official up a hill to the media interview area. (McIlroy won.)

Adam Scott has the game and the game plan to win at Merion. He plays a limited schedule structured almost entirely to prepare for the majors. It worked at the Masters in April.

Justin Rose is another non-winner in 2013, but that's going to change soon enough. But does it change at Merion? Eh.

Brandt Snedeker hasn't been the same since suffering a rib injury early in the season. Luke Donald, usually a top 10-finish machine, is malfunctioning these days. Zero wins and only two top-five finishes.

Graeme McDowell owns a U.S. Open championship and doesn't back down to anybody. He has missed cuts in three biggies: the Masters, The Players and the BMW PGA Championship. But he sandwiched wins in-between two of those MCs.

Louis Oosthuizen was last seen WD'ing at the Byron Nelson. He won early in the year, but also has three missed cuts, including at the Masters.

Kuchar, who will move into the top five in the next world rankings, hasn't missed a cut all year, won the WGC-Accenture Match Play, nearly won at Colonial a week ago and got the congratulatory handshake from Nicklaus after winning Memorial on Sunday. He was so impressive that Nicklaus even high-fived Kuchar's young sons after their dad birdied the 18th hole.

Other than Woods, Kuchar is the only multiple winner on Tour this year. And since 2010, he leads the Tour with 35 top-10 finishes. "Heading into Merion, I'll have a lot of confidence," Kuchar said. "It's a course I've not seen before, so I'll have to do some learning. … I'm looking forward to my chances there at Merion."

But Kuchar might want to lose the tough guy-playoff hockey beard look. With his baby face, it's like calling a Cocker Spaniel puppy, "Killer."

Lee Westwood, who is -- all together now -- the best player never to have won a major, is going to figure out a way to get one soon enough. He WD'd at Memorial, but had five consecutive top-10 finishes before he got here.

And just for fun, there's Phil Mickelson. Mickelson is capable of anything. He could miss the cut, as he did at The Players. He could win at Merion. He could sit outside the players lounge and make animal figures out of balloons. Who knows with Lefty? I have no idea who Nicklaus is taking to win at Merion. Whoever it is, I'll take the other guy.

Unless it's Woods.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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